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Catholic Church’s downsizing only the beginning as attendances and incomes decline

Church of Ireland has already merged many of the 26 dioceses established in 1111 AD at the Synod of Ráth Breasail

So it begins. The West of Ireland’s six Catholic dioceses in Connacht are reduced to three, with the Archdiocese of Tuam taking over Killala; Elphin taking over Achonry; and Galway already “running” Clonfert.

There is every reason to believe a similar pattern will soon manifest itself in the island’s three other Catholic Church metropolitan areas, corresponding to the other three provinces of Ulster, Munster and Leinster, respectively the Archdioceses of Armagh, Cashel and Dublin.

Driven by a declining number of clergy, whose average age is now in the early 70s (priests and bishops retire at 75), declining attendances at Masses and other liturgies, an increase in civil marriages, and declining income generally, necessity has become the mother of invention where a restructuring of Catholic Ireland is concerned.

Predictably, some would say, Wednesday’s announcement at Tuam’s Catholic Cathedral in Co Galway happened without the knowledge of a majority of clergy in either Achonry or Killala dioceses and without any consultation whatsoever with the laity in either.*


It was made by the new papal nuncio to Ireland Archbishop Luis Mariano Montemayor, an Argentinian who arrived in Dublin from Colombia less than a year ago after service in Ethiopia, Brazil, Thailand, Rome, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Mauritania and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

That said, the reorganisation makes sense as the total Catholic population of the six Connacht dioceses, for instance, is approximately 462,000 compared to the 1.12 million in the Archdiocese of Dublin alone. Bishop of Achonry Paul Dempsey (52) is to be transferred to Dublin as its second Auxiliary Bishop alongside Bishop Donal Roche (65), appointed last month to assist Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Farrell (69).

Bishop Dempsey grew up in Athy, Co Kildare which is in the Dublin Archdiocese. As Archbishop Farrell said yesterday, his new Auxiliary is “no stranger to these parts” and whose “fresh ideas, and deep motivation, his personal warmth and evident closeness to people on the ground, and his experience of ministry in the west of Ireland, will be of service in the deepening the unity of the Church in our land”.

In Ulster, or the Armagh metropolitan area of the Catholic Church on this island, two of its nine dioceses are currently without bishops. Archbishop of Armagh and Catholic Primate Archbishop Eamon Martin has been Administrator of the small Co Down Dromore diocese since 2018 when then Bishop of Dromore John McAreavey resigned following controversy around the late child sex abuser Fr Malachy Finnegan.

Last month former Bishop of Raphoe in Co Donegal, Alan McGuckian, became Bishop of Down and Connor in Belfast, with Msgr Kevin Gillespie appointed Administrator in Raphoe. It has been speculated that Raphoe and the diocese of Derry may be amalgamated on the retirement of current Bishop of Derry, Donal McKeown, who will be 75 in April of next year.

Also coming up to retirement is Bishop of Clogher (mainly Monaghan) Larry Duffy who will be 75 in 2026.

In the Munster, Cashel Archdiocesan metropolitan area, the Bishop of Cloyne (mainly Co Cork) diocese William Crean will reach retirement age in 2026. Before Bishop Crean’s appointment in 2013, then Archbishop of Cashel Dermot Clifford had also acted as Administrator of Cloyne following the 2010 resignation of Bishop John Magee in a controversy over his dealings with clerical child sex abuse allegations.

Most other Catholic bishops in Ireland are still some years from retirement so the amalgamation of other dioceses is likely to be a gradual process over the coming decades. Meanwhile, and following yesterday’s announcement, Ireland’s 26 Catholic dioceses have 21 bishops, with an additional two Auxiliary Bishops in Dublin and Auxiliary Bishop Michael Router in Armagh.

The Church of Ireland, which inherited the same number of dioceses from the Synod of Ráth Breasail in 1111 AD and the following Synod of Kells in 1152, has reduced its dioceses to 11 with just two Archbishops, in Armagh and Dublin.

Its United Dioceses of Tuam, Limerick and Killaloe came into being in 2021 when the United Dioceses of Limerick and Killaloe, and the United Dioceses of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, were amalgamated under one bishop.

Far and away the biggest Irish diocese geographically, it covers almost a third of the island of Ireland, including areas of the midlands, the west and southwest as well as the west coast from south Kerry to the edge of Co Sligo and including counties Mayo, Galway, Clare, part of Sligo, Limerick, Kerry, much of Tipperary, part of Offaly and a small portion of Roscommon.

Bishop of the new United Dioceses of Tuam, Limerick and Killaloe is Michael Burrows or, to give him his full title, Bishop of Tuam, Killala, Achonry, Limerick, Ardfert, Aghadoe, Killaloe, Kilfenora, Clonfert, Kilmacduagh and Emly.

Between April and May 2022, he was enthroned in all the United Diocese’s six cathedrals.

*The Catholic Communications Office has contacted us to say that “the bishops of the Western Province have been proposing reform for many years, and this has been discussed with clergy and laity. More recently, the Apostolic Nuncio had met with representatives of priests and people in Achonry, Tuam, Killala, and Elphin at the express wish of the four bishops of these dioceses.”